As the sun peaked over the trees of Forest Park, a splash of bright morning light landed on the pictures of 256 organ and tissue donors. Colorful ribbons, some adorned with memories and notes about loved ones, fluttered from tree limbs with the sunrise glistening in the background. It was the Garden of Heroes, honoring heroic donors who have given the Gift of Life. It was one of many beautiful and inspiring moments at the fourth annual Celebrate Life 5K Run/Walk on Sunday at the Upper Muny Parking Lot in Forest Park.
The Garden of Heroes represents the sadness of losing a loved one balanced with the solace of knowing that person – that hero – saved lives. “This is the memory of a loved one,” said Angela McMillan, who was attending to honor her brother Roderick. “Each year you come back, it gives you inspiration knowing that you’ll see their face and feel their spirit, because they are still here. I love the memorial, because you see all these families coming together to honor their loved one.”
An estimated 3,000 people attended the Celebrate Life 5K. They came bearing tribute signs for their loved one, wearing custom t-shirts celebrating their loved one’s life, and preparing for the hilly 3.1-mile course.
“We Have His Heart!”
Savannah Roesch described her brother, Donovan Bulger, to the crowd of donor families, recipients, transplant patients, medical professionals and supporters of the cause. He was a 21-year-old who would do anything to help others. “The world is less bright without him in it, and we miss him more than we could ever express,” she said.
She then described how they met Donovan’s heart recipient. “Chances are many of you here today have watched the video or heard about our incredible story,” she said. Savannah and her family were at Busch Stadium for Transplant Awareness Day sponsored by Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Just after getting a group picture, a woman approached the family and asked, “Are you Donovan’s family?”
They assumed she knew Donovan through work or school. The woman then said, “We have his heart! My husband has his heart!” Donovan’s heart recipient, John Sueme, was attending the game too. His daughter recognized the picture of Donovan on the family’s shirts, and John’s wife approached Donovan’s family.
The meeting was captured on video and featured on television stations nationwide. Later in the day, each member of Donovan’s family was able to listen to his heart beat again. “The way I felt that day is just indescribable,” Savannah said.
Savannah concluded her remarks: “We are so proud of our brother Donovan, and his decision to be an organ and tissue donor. Even though he’s no longer with us, we do find peace and comfort knowing our loss has given life to others. Our loved ones we have lost, they are heroes. Our family joins yours in honoring our loved ones.”
Our One Day to Remember
Angel Dodson was in the Garden of Heroes with her family. The picture of her youngest daughter, Quinn, was among the heroes recognized on this day. Quinn passed away three years ago as a small child. She saved two children through the donation of her heart valves and cartilage.
“It’s important because as a donor family, sometimes you feel that your loved one has been forgotten and you’re the only one who remembers her,” Angela said of attending the 5K. “We don’t celebrate birthdays, you don’t have the holidays, so this is our one day to remember her and to have all of our family and friends together. And it’s great to see other donor families you can relate to.”
It brings everyone together
Team EJ was attending in honor of EJ Harris, a young man who enjoyed Fortnite and playing football. He saved four lives as a donor in 2018. “It’s a beautiful sight just to see everyone represented that’s not here,” said Reckel Harris, EJ’s cousin. “I love the unity at the Celebrate Life 5K. It brings everyone together. It felt peaceful, and I love that.”
Paul Kosednar finished second in his age group after running in honor of his son, Elias. He became a donor about one year after he received a lung transplant. “We celebrate him on his birthday and the day of transplant,” Paul said. “And for me, this event is on par with those and equal to those in terms of how much we look forward to it.”
The gift of yet another day
John Sueme, Donovan Bulger’s heart recipient, also shared his story of waiting and receiving. He thanked his donor’s family and all of those attending the Celebrate Life 5K.
“I am a most fortunate man,” he said. “Every day when I shave, I look into the mirror and I see the scar on my chest. I am reminded of the gift I received from my hero, Donovan Bulger: The gift of yet another day. I will close with the same sentiment I expressed in my original recipient letter to my donor family. I am sincerely, sadly, gratefully, and triumphantly yours.”